Snag Canyon Fire shows how logging can help stop wildfires

Snag Canyon Fire shows how logging can help stop wildfires

05 October 2014

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USA — In an intense wildfire, trees can practically melt as needles and small branches become fluid enough to bend and then “freeze” as they cool and re-solidify.

It’s a sign of serious heat. So it’s surprising that just 10 yards from a contorted tree whose limbs appear to be hugging a blackened trunk are other trees with green crowns that look barely touched by the fire. It’s as if some invisible line separated life and death.

This summer’s Snag Canyon Fire burned across 12,600 acres of brush and forest north of Ellensburg, but the intensity of the fire and resulting damage varied dramatically across the ridge slopes.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know why one island of green inexplicably survived a wildfire, but Ken McNamee knows exactly what created this invisible line — logging.

“In the dense, untreated stands, the fire moves from tree top to tree top and that’s not good for anybody,” said McNamee, a division manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. “In this logged area where the remaining trees stand far apart, all the tree tops are still green, the fire scorched some small bushes and seedlings, but it’s not all black.”

In the face of increasingly destructive fires, cutting down some trees may be the only way to save our forests from themselves.

This summer was Washington’s worst fire season ever. Ignited by lightning, driven by hot, windy weather on bone-dry rangeland and tinderbox forests, flames ripped across 567 square miles, destroying at least 336 homes and costing close to $200 million to fight.

The Snag Canyon Fire was mild in comparison to other fires, but McNamee says it’s a prime example of how commercial logging and thinning treatments designed to improve forest health can reduce fire severity.

“Some folks still think when we talk about logging that we are clearcutting, but that’s not how we do business anymore,” he said.

Indeed, the area logged by Boise Cascade a decade ago, before the state acquired the land, still has 35 or 40 large trees on each acre. Saplings and bushes grew in those spaces, allowing the fire to move fast and low to the ground where it didn’t get hot enough to kill the bigger trees.

“Fire is like nature’s vacuum cleaner; it just cleaned up the brush here,” McNamee said.

In contrast, the standing charcoal formerly known as forest nearby had 300 to 400 trees per acre.

Forest fires are natural on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, but the devastation of recent years is not. Foresters believe that historic logging and decades of putting out as many fires as possible reshaped the forests from open stands dominated by big, fire-tolerant ponderosa pine to dense stands crowded with skinny trees rising from growing piles of brush and dead wood.

Clearing out that firewood is needed across the region to reduce fire risks, but it’s not cheap, said Reese Lolley with The Nature Conservancy in Yakima. Selling enough timber to cover the costs of the brush-clearing enables cash-strapped landowners, such as the Forest Service, to treat more acres and create more open forests with better chances of surviving fires, he said.

It might be surprising to hear a conservation group like the Nature Conservancy advocate for more logging, but forestry has come a long way from the clearcuts that many picture when they think about timber harvest. Lolley said recognition is growing that harvest can be done in environmentally friendly ways and needs to be done to reduce fire impacts.

That’s exactly what the Forest Service did on about 200 acres where firefighters were ultimately able to hold the northwest corner of the Snag Canyon Fire.

“We were trying to get a better habitat for owls and elk and deer. The byproduct was the timber harvest,” said Mike Starkovich, fire manager for the Cle Elum Ranger District. “You want to make the treatment pay for itself.”

The area that the Forest Service thinned doesn’t look logged — the trees are more dense than in the commercial harvest areas — but there are more gaps than the untreated forest. Some trees appear to have died in the fire, but most survived, simply singed.

The treatment, done in 2005, included cutting down trees, mostly smaller ones, and then using prescribed burns to clear out the brush.

Starkovich said the Forest Service likes to use fire after thinning because it’s more natural, but McNamee said the state shies away from it because of concerns over risk, air quality and the staffing and planning needed to conduct prescribed fires safely. Instead, they burn slash piles.

Research shows that following thinning with prescribed fire is the best way to push the forests back to a more fire-tolerant condition, Lolley said. That way when a wildfire hits, it’ll be less destructive.

The area treated by the Forest Service stopped both the Snag Canyon Fire and 2012’s Table Mountain Fire, which approached from different directions. The thinned area made it safer for firefighters to work, Starkovich said.

So if the thinning treatment helped stop the wildfire and practically paid for itself, why isn’t the Forest Service doing far more such projects?

Starkovich said that planning these treatment projects can take from two to four years, because the Forest Service has to pass an extensive environmental review before work can begin.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “But, it’s a race against nature. Are we going to get it done before the next fire hits?”

Although their agencies have slightly different goals for managing the forests, both Starkovich and McNamee said that doing different levels of thinning around a forest would be ideal.

Commercially logged areas, where trees are selectively cut but not clearcut, can survive a fire well and serve as a base for firefighters, while other areas could be only thinning slightly or left undisturbed to protect spotted owl habitat or protect the headwaters of a creek.

Ironically, McNamee said the dense stand of charred trees was set aside to protect habitat. while adjacent areas were subject to selective logging.

Now, he’s planning a salvage harvest operation to take out almost all the dead trees here. Across the burned area, the state aims to log about 1,000 burned acres, McNamee said, since they avoid areas with steep slopes or that lack road access.

They have to act fast, as the wood deteriorates quickly. Loggers will work all winter, which will shut down some areas to hunting this season.

They’ll leave any Ponderosa pine or western larch that have some green crown left, in hopes that the thick bark trees manage to survive. But the thinner fir trees are likely lost causes.

The state should be able to make enough money on the burned timber to cover the cost of planting hundreds of thousands of new seedlings to help the forest start over.

“We lost this habitat that critters need by not managing it,” McNamee said. “We need to find a way to protect this habitat we need to have so we don’t lose the whole thing.”

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